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Air Quality: Luton Road, Dunstable

Volume 735: debated on Tuesday 27 June 2023

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Steve Double.)

It is vital for our health that the air we breathe is as clean as possible. When I was on the Select Committee on Health and Social Care, I had the honour to chair the health component of a five-Select Committee report into improving air quality. We should be honest that, unless we are all happy to be a lot poorer, there will always be some difficult compromises involved, but none the less it is right that the Government are committed to improving air quality.

The Government recognise that local action in areas such as transport and planning is key to making the improvements required around the country. Reducing diesel-powered heavy goods vehicle traffic in residential areas and reducing the frequency with which HGVs have to start and stop, which leads to additional concentrations of fine particulate matter caused by brakes and tyres, is a critical part of that action.

On 17 January 2005 an air quality management area was declared in Dunstable by the former South Bedfordshire District Council. The Woodside Link road was first proposed in 2012. At the funding and permissions stages, it was made abundantly clear that reducing traffic, especially HGVs, within the Dunstable AQMA was a key objective of the scheme.

That objective was spelled out in the 2006 air quality action plan, the 2012 Woodside Link consultation document, the 2012 environmental assessment report for the Woodside Link road, the 2012 Central Bedfordshire Council environmental scoping report, the 2013 Woodside connection and Houghton Regis development modelling report, the 2013 local pinch point funding evidence document, the 2013 letter to the chief executive from the South East Midlands local enterprise partnership and the 2015 Woodside Link contract award. I think the Minister will agree that that is irrefutable evidence of what the Woodside Link was intended to do—namely, to provide a direct route for HGVs between the M1 and the Woodside industrial estate. It was not intended to increase traffic in half of Dunstable’s AQMA by redistributing HGVs from the high street in Dunstable to Luton Road, yet unfortunately that is what has happened.

The air quality action plan was produced in 2006 and cited the proposed Woodside Link scheme as a means to divert traffic, especially HGVs, away from the AQMA to improve air quality. However—and it is a very significant however—the Woodside Link economic case was published in February 2014, although it does not appear to have been publicly available, and stated:

“The traffic flow forecasts indicate that there is an increase in flows along Luton Road as HGVs re-route in order to access the Woodside industrial area.”

That is highly significant, because the Luton Road is around half of the AQMA. That statement from February 2014 is completely at odds with the document that was put in the public domain on 3 November 2016—namely, the area-wide weight limits report. That report states, at paragraph 15b on page 7:

“An earlier proposal for weight limits in the area was met with opposition from residents of Luton Road. However, it is felt that the completion of the A5-M1 and Woodside Link roads will mean that heavy traffic in Luton Road will be reduced. It is unlikely that side roads will be used in preference to Luton Road, particularly since the proposal is not expected to increase lorry traffic in Luton Road.”

What the public were told was very clear and stated in multiple documents—fewer HGVs on Luton Road as a result of the Woodside Link—and there it was in black and white. So it appears that Luton Road residents were not given the full facts in the run-up to the decision to build the Woodside Link, which received £5 million of central Government funding.

If we then fast-forward to the 2022 post-opening report for the Woodside Link road, we see that there are no traffic studies available for Luton Road—which, I repeat, is roughly half the AQMA. However, I am grateful to one of my highly assiduous constituents, who has looked at the existing traffic studies on three neighbouring roads—Boscombe Road, Church Street and Poynters Road—and has calculated that there has been an 18% increase in HGVs travelling along Luton Road, following the redistribution of traffic that arose in 2018 from the imposition of weight limits on other roads. Central Bedfordshire Council does not want to use the 18% figure, but has confirmed that it is likely that there has been an increase in HGV traffic along Luton Road. That is highly significant given that a major argument for building the Woodside Link road was to improve air quality across the whole of the AQMA, and certainly not just half of it.

A large number of the people who were identified as the key beneficiaries of the Woodside Link road at the funding stage—residents of Luton Road and nearby—are now worse off as a result of the scheme because increased HGV traffic outside their front doors is not a benefit for air quality purposes. Despite that, Central Bedfordshire Council is reporting to the Department for Transport, in the five-year post-opening report, that all the objectives of the scheme identified at the funding stage have been achieved. My assiduous constituent did not agree with some of the figures in that report. It took him six months of complaining to get the figures changed.

There had been claims that the original figures had been reviewed by the Department for Transport, but it turned out that that was not the case either. My constituent had to request copies of the report under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004, and had to wait nine and a half weeks to be provided with a copy. It also needs to be pointed out that the air quality action plan for Dunstable has not been reviewed since its adoption by the former South Bedfordshire District Council in 2006—seventeen years ago. Those plans are supposed to be reviewed every five years.

As MPs, sometimes people come to us about something and there are no easy solutions, but in this case, there is one. Significantly greater use of the Woodside Link road by HGV traffic coming to the Woodside industrial estate and neighbouring industrial developments would provide huge relief. On page 181 in section 13.5, the environmental assessment report for the Woodside Link road, published in October 2012, says of the Woodside Link:

“The route alignments have been designed to maintain substantial distances between existing properties and the new road, where possible.”

The road also includes noise, fencing and bunds. There are significantly fewer residential properties alongside it, and the homes that are alongside it are further away, with some of the protection I have just mentioned.

Coming to the Woodside industrial estate and the neighbouring business developments up the M1 from the south, the additional journey time to go to junction 11A and use the Woodside Link road only takes a few minutes longer than using the Luton Road. The Luton Road is more congested and has many traffic lights on it, causing HGVs to stop and start, producing more diesel fumes and more particulate matter from brakes and tyres.

There is one very significant local business based close to Luton Road which is doing the right thing, and that is Amazon. Amazon sometimes gets criticised as a business, possibly unfairly, but from the very beginning, it has instructed all its delivery drivers to avoid using junction 11, which would necessitate travel along Luton Road, and to use junction 11A instead. That specifically applies to drivers coming up from the south as well. Amazon continues to make that instruction very clear, and is an example of a business behaving responsibly, acting as a good neighbour and caring about local residents’ health. We need other businesses to follow suit.

I salute the patient and studious detective work that my constituent has undertaken to reveal all this information. It is with a desire to seek full transparency, accountability and the remedies necessary to put these issues right that I have brought these matters into the public domain this evening. It should not have taken this long to get this far. Central Government must have a role in overseeing the proper conduct of local government in the noble pursuit of helping people to breathe air that is as clean and pure as possible. It also has a duty to ensure that its money is spent according to the objectives originally stated, with accurate and transparent evaluation of the actual outcomes.

I look to the Minister, who I know is new to this case, to take a serious interest in it and to get into the detail with her officials and Central Bedfordshire Council. As I said, I think there is a solution, and I think we could make life better, as we all originally intended to do.

My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) is correct: I am new to this case and, indeed, to this portfolio. However, this debate has led me to understand some of the monitoring that has been carried out in South West Bedfordshire and the wider area. I thank him for bringing this case to my attention and for giving me the opportunity to set out what the Government are doing to improve air quality, which is a fundamental part of our environmental improvement plan across the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Poor air quality is the greatest environmental threat to health, leading to reduced life expectancy and costing the NHS and society billions of pounds each year, so action from Government is vital. Since 2010, we have achieved significant reductions in major pollutants. I hope my hon. Friend will allow me to talk about some of the positive things that have been achieved, and then I will move on to the specifics of this case, where further interrogation of the monitoring results is clearly needed.

We know that emissions of fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, are down 10%, emissions of nitrogen oxides are down 45%, and emissions of sulphur dioxide are down 73%. Of course, that is good news and is heading in the right direction, but we must go further. Reducing concentrations of PM2.5 in England by just 1 microgram per cubic metre in a single year can prevent around 50,000 cases of coronary heart disease, 15,000 strokes, 9,000 cases of asthma and 4,000 lung cancers over the following 18 years. That is why earlier this year, we set a new maximum annual mean concentration target for PM2.5 of 10 micrograms per cubic metre, down from the previous limit of 20 micrograms, to be met by 2040. Alongside that, we set a population exposure reduction target, which will mean that on average, everyone’s exposure to that harmful pollutant will fall by over a third by 2040. The measures through which we will meet those stretching targets are set out in the environmental improvement plan, which was published on 31 January this year. That action includes continuing to tackle emissions from domestic burning; challenging councils to improve air quality more quickly; reducing ammonia emissions from farming; and improving our regulatory framework for industrial emissions.

As the environmental improvement plan recognises, councils play a vital role in improving air quality and have the tools and levers to tackle air pollution at a local level. Throughout my hon. Friend’s speech, he referenced a particular road, Luton Road, and the good work that a business in his constituency—namely, Amazon—has done by directing its drivers down a different road. Traffic regulation orders are one tool that the local council could potentially look into, and while that is closer to the remit of the Department for Transport, I would be very happy to meet Transport Ministers—probably the roads Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden)—to talk that proposal through.

We are committed to working with local authorities, providing them with clear guidance, funding and tools. On air quality specifically, that includes the air quality grant, which this year provided over £11 million to 44 local projects. Since 2010, we have funded over 500 projects, ranging from anti-idling campaigns around schools to training GPs to become air quality champions. It also includes the £883 million we have made available to help local authorities develop and implement local nitrogen oxide reduction plans and support those impacted by those plans.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s constituent, who seems to be a real champion for improving the air quality in his community. We need those champions—can-do people in the local community who know their area best. It should not be so difficult for people in our communities to get the information and data that they need: even I have struggled to get the data I need to influence policy. That is something that we absolutely need to improve on. The guidance we have provided also includes the revision of our air quality strategy, which we published in April this year. That strategy sets out how we expect local authorities to use their powers to improve air quality and support delivery of our stretching national targets.

Turning to the Woodside Link, that scheme was completed in 2017 to improve access to housing and other developments in the Dunstable area, with £5 million of Government funding; a further £33 million came from the council and third-party organisations. From the embryonic stages of the link road, as my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire explained—he will know, because he has been the Member for the area since 2001, all the way through the scheme—local residents were hoping to see a reduction in heavy goods vehicles on that road. The council has shared its “five years on” report with the Department for Transport, and I know that my hon. Friend has raised concerns with that Department, too. The findings and the impacts of the scheme are matters for Central Bedfordshire Council, but I am very happy to take this issue up with it, and I of course recommend that my hon. Friend continues to engage most assiduously with the council on it.

Luton Road is part of Central Bedfordshire Council’s declared air quality management area. The air quality management area was declared in 2005, due to exceedances of the nitrogen dioxide air quality objectives from roadside emissions. I am pleased that Central Bedfordshire Council has stated in its latest annual progress reports to us that the levels of nitrogen dioxide on Luton Road have been compliant with objectives since 2018. My understanding, however, is that there is not a monitor for PM2.5 on Luton Road.

I am very grateful for the Minister’s interest and I would like to take up the offer of a meeting with the roads Minister and her to try to work with the local authority, because I think we can move forward to make things better. I think at the heart of this is the public statement

“that heavy traffic in Luton Road will be reduced.”

That has not happened, and that is where the anger comes from. More HGVs belching out diesel fumes when stopping and starting at lights means worse air quality. We will need to measure where I looked before and after, but it must have got worse: more HGVs means the air quality gets worse if someone’s front door is next to a busy road such as that. That is where I think the disappointment and the anger is. The Government do need to be transparent, honest and straightforward, and if we have not achieved what we said we were going to, we need to go back and do a proper post-evaluation report and see what we can do to put it right. Would she not agree with me about that as an approach?

I would certainly agree with the local MP, who has served the area since 2001. He has seen this project through to fruition and absolutely understands the concerns—first, the promises made to his constituents, and now the concerns—about increased traffic and therefore increased emissions. While the Department for Transport does have a comprehensive plan to decarbonise the transport sector, including heavy goods vehicles, we are not there yet. As I have set out, air quality is a fundamental and vital part of our ability to survive and thrive, and it is critically impacting on the health of our nation.

I look forward to meeting to speak in more detail with my hon. Friend, the roads Minister and perhaps members or officials from Central Bedfordshire Council to see how we can assist. I will also remind the council that the action plan for the Luton Road air quality management area dates from 2006. That has not been updated by Luton Council. I am pleased to say that, last year, we strengthened the Environment Act 2021 by introducing a new escalation process.

I appreciate that this is a long way from the Minister’s constituency, but the council that has not updated the action plan is Central Bedfordshire Council. This is about Luton Road, but that is within Central Bedfordshire Council, which is the local authority.

I thank my hon. Friend for that correction. There has been a new escalation process for local authorities behind on their reporting duties, including where air quality action plans have not recently been updated, and that will come into force on 30 June.

I can assure my hon. Friend that, even after compliance with the legal air quality objectives has been secured, we do expect local authorities to continue to act to improve air quality. As we set out recently in the air quality strategy, we fully expect councils to take action to reduce emissions of PM2.5 from sources within their control. If we consider that the action from councils is insufficient, we will consult on introducing a stand-alone legal duty on local authorities to take action to reduce PM2.5 emissions.

I thank my hon. Friend again for raising this important issue and for giving me reason to look into our monitoring across the country, particularly the monitoring undertaken in his constituency and specifically on Luton Road. I hope that I have reassured him that we are taking comprehensive and necessary action to drive down harmful emissions, but there is always more to do. We are doing this at both national and local level, protecting our people’s health and our environment, and I look forward to following up with my hon. Friend to discuss this in much more detail.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.